Approaching social impact in the 21st century

After 14 years of working with people equally passionate about improving the lives of children and families, you can learn a lot about what it takes to be successful in today’s changing philanthropic environment.  I’m humbled to lead a team at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation with a strong focus on outcomes—a team of people who fundamentally believe the work we do is really, really important. Here are some of my learnings.

At any given time, our team is facing a mountain to climb.

In those moments, we can also look back and see the pinnacles we’ve reached.  We can see where we stumbled and were forced to change our path.  Social impact work is not about having all the answers; it’s about engaging, working and correcting, all in pursuit of a better future.  The lessons we’ve learned on our journey influence and guide our work. If any of them can help others get to success faster, or better determine the role they want to play in the social impact space, the better it is for all of us. We’ve translated those learnings into the Dell Social Impact Principles, and they’re at the heart of what we do and how we do it.   We work in a range of different geographies and across a number of different programs, but these Principles guide our work everywhere.

There’s no success without failure.

Failure often has a negative connotation, but it allows us to learn from what doesn’t work, and that makes it worth sharing. Our team believes if it doesn’t work, tell everyone. This is one of the core principles that guides our work. That insight – the knowledge of what does work and what doesn’t – helps all of us in philanthropy and social impact get better.  Failure is often downplayed because sometimes financial resources are contingent upon success, but we can all achieve our goals faster if we talk about both.  It is for this reason that our foundation team hosts or attends events every year where we can gather with people for honest discussions about what is and what is not working.

The chance to make a difference in a child’s education or a family’s economic trajectory drives us to find the problems with the biggest opportunities for impact.

It’s then that we move forward with a focus on mindful measurement.  Our work is about accomplishing change, so it’s far more important for us to measure outcomes— in terms of human lives being changed measurably for the better—than to measure activities. True change is not about wishing it were so, but rather it’s about actually tracking to make sure change has happened.  We can’t stop at only halfway.

It is so much more powerful to know and see and talk with many of the tens of thousands of young people in India this year who, thanks to our partners who are leading the way in skills training, are now placed and working in jobs that as much as quadruple their family income, rather than to only measure the number of vocational training hours they have received.  Training is a wonderful benefit, but it only changes lives when it translates to an aspirational job.

Money alone doesn’t solve problems. People do.

Certainly, money enables our work. But it is humans who solve deep-rooted problems, especially when it comes to children and families. Recent successes in South Africa in creating and delivering effective tools for school districts are evidence of that.  While money opens opportunity, it’s the multitude of creative and committed people across government, districts, schools, NGOs and technology providers all working together that makes the real difference. In a space where so many are committed to finding new ways to tackle entrenched challenges, we as philanthropists are required to invest in people. We need to align with new partners in ways that allow each of us to address specific pieces of multi-faced issues according to the change we’re each best positioned to drive. Being smart about the role each partner plays allow us to collectively make a much bigger difference.

Philanthropic capital is the opportunity to take risks where others cannot.

Since the early days of the foundation, we’ve never been afraid to set big goals for ourselves—even when they seem daunting. As a foundation with philanthropic capital, we are in a position to take big risks in pursuit of those goals. The problems we tackle require creative people, innovative ideas, investments of resources, hard work, and time. Some might argue there’s more risk in philanthropy today because we’re witnessing a breakdown of traditional barriers between business, non-profit, government and individuals.  But our team views the engagement by more collaborators, and sometimes unlikely collaborators, as a huge opportunity.

We are also seeing growth in the influx of people who want to be part of the social impact space and who are willing to contribute more than money.  Time and expertise and enthusiasm – we can never have too much of these. We’re all in this world together. We share its problems and the consequences of them. We can combine our efforts, implement new ideas, and take steps that feel risky but move us toward a solution.

The work we do at the foundation is about creating and accelerating human opportunity. And that is work worth fighting for, no matter how hard it gets.

The beacon for our work: this is worth it.

The work we do at the foundation is about creating and accelerating human opportunity. And that is work worth fighting for, no matter how hard it gets. We have to dig in, go deep, and stay the course until we achieve success.  For inspiration, we need look no further than the thousands of extraordinary young people who are part of our Dell Scholars and Dell Young Leaders scholarship programs.  Each with their own unique story, these young men and women have overcome incredible odds to achieve new levels of educational, career and family success, and their energy, enthusiasm and willingness to fight the good fight every single day exemplifies what it takes to create change in the world.

My advice to anyone new to social impact is simple: Start with the intersection of what you care most about and what you’re good at.  Your passion and the satisfaction of being able to contribute valuable expertise will not only inspire those around you, but will also keep you motivated through both the successes and the inevitable setbacks you’ll face.

I care deeply about the work we do at the foundation – and beyond.  I know there are so many people around the world who are working to create positive change locally, nationally and globally.  We want to learn more, know more and challenge our own beliefs about what’s possible. To that end, I invite you to get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook, and share your stories as you pursue social impact.

Let’s exchange ideas.

Stay in the know with updates, tools and learnings for the future of philanthropy. Visit impact.msdf.org.